From 6 billion to 7 billion: How population growth is changing and challenging our world

3 Oct 2011

For the fourth time in the past half century, one billion people were added to the planet in 14 years or less. But what does that mean for human well-being and the fate of the planet?
With world population on the verge of crossing the 7 billion mark, the Population Institute's report outlines the critical challenges posed by population growth…and the correspondingly urgent need to ensure universal access to family planning and reproductive health services.
The report, which looks back at how the world has changed in the 12 years since the 6 billion mark was crossed, warns that while notable progress has been made in making immunizations, safe drinking water, and education more available to children in the developing world, those young people “are inheriting a world in which arable land and water are in increasingly short supply, food and fuel prices are steadily increasing, rivers and lakes are shrinking, water levels are falling, temperatures are rising, drought and flooding are intensifying, biodiversity is declining, the number of failing states is expanding, and the very future of ocean habitats is threatened.”
The report documents how rising food and energy prices, along with climate change, threaten to reverse the gains that have been made in reducing hunger and severe poverty. The report notes that, “The world is a much different place today than it was in 1999. A century marked by falling prices, escalating hopes, and rising standards of living has given way to a decade of rising prices, deflated hopes, and setbacks in reducing hunger and world poverty. The fight against global warming has turned into a retreat, and leading thinkers are challenging traditional assumptions about the sustainability of economic growth.”
The report also challenges the notion that world population will soon peak. Noting that fertility rates are not declining as fast as many expected, the report warns that ” Adolescent pregnancy rates remain high, and with the world’s largest generation of people now entering their prime reproductive years, world population may not stabilize as soon as previously hoped or expected. While lack of access to contraceptives is still a problem in many parts of the world, and urgently needs to be addressed, supplying more contraceptives may not yield significant drops in fertility rates without a fundamental shift in attitudes toward women and girls and the abandonment of practices like child marriage.”
In describing the report, Bill Ryerson, the President of the Population Institute, emphasized that it contains some “good news.” While population growth is a major challenge, the solution is not so daunting. The report notes that increasing access to contraceptives, by itself, may not yield a rapid reduction in fertility rates, but “combined with other cost-effective measures that serve to delay age of marriage and reduce desired family size, fertility rates could fall much faster than currently projected.”
School nutrition programs, Ryerson noted, can help keep girls in school longer, and social content serial dramas can effectively combat practices like child marriage. Ryerson stressed, however, that gender equity and empowering women are essential. “We can’t get to where we need to go without a much stronger commitment to reproductive health and rights. Our hope is that this report will help to create a heightened sense of urgency. A ‘business as usual’ approach will not suffice. Donor nations must fulfill the international commitments that were made 17 years ago in Cairo at the International Conference on Population and Development.”

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